One of Congress’ most important responsibilities is protecting Americans from harmful commercial products and activities. New technologies, materials, and products may show promise, but they can come with new and unforeseen harms. As our economy is increasingly interconnected and garden-variety frauds are committed over phone lines and the internet, Congress must continue to lead in protecting consumers from exploitation.
Fostering a Safer and More Inclusive Internet
While the internet has been an engine of remarkable innovation and novelty, fundamentally changing the way we interact with one another, it also has a dark side. The same technologies that provide us with entertainment and super-convenient commerce have also facilitated a toxic ecosystem of hate and resentment. The more “wired” our culture becomes, the more vulnerable we become to cyberbullying, exploitation, fraud, misinformation, disinformation, and other forms of abuse. The law needs to evolve and adapt to protect from new forms of violence and privacy violation.
The internet has matured well beyond the point where we continue to treat the whole enterprise as a “startup” too delicate to regulate. Many Americans conduct business and live their lives primarily on the internet and the internet is now dominated by many large, sophisticated firms with tremendous market power. Companies need to be able to respond to regulation and Congress can and must take strong action to curtail harmful activity on the internet.
To that end, Congresswoman Speier re-introduced her bipartisan legislation, the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act (the SHIELD Act), as an amendment to the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2021 (VAWA). The SHIELD Act would address the widespread and harmful problem of nonconsensual pornography, often referred to as “revenge porn.” Victims whose private intimate images are shared online often suffer acute emotional harm and catastrophic damage to their professional and personal lives. The SHIELD Act would make it a federal crime to share nude or sexual images of someone with reckless disregard as to their lack of consent and expectation of privacy. The amendment passed as part of VAWA with bipartisan support.
Additionally, Congresswoman Speier supports legislation that would give consumers more control over their privacy. The current privacy regime, created by corporations and forced upon consumers with hardly any consent whatsoever, has led to a situation in which consumers’ valuable personal information is up for sale by data brokers without the consumers’ awareness of how their information is being used. Congress must act to impose requirements on companies that collect personal data to tell consumers how their information is being used and limit the ways in which that information can be utilized without the user’s informed consent.
Congresswoman Speier is equally concerned about toxic disinformation and hate speech on the internet. While always respecting the cherished freedom of speech, Congress can and should take steps to prevent the most serious harms. For instance, the American public faces serious risks from the possibility of hyper-realistic digital forgeries, or “deep fakes,” that falsely depict real people doing or saying things that never happened. Such fakeries can not only harm the individuals that are depicted, they could be used to interfere with official processes and elections. Congresswoman Speier has led women legislators from Congress and around the world in discussions with Facebook to raise concerns about online gender disinformation. Congress must think of creative and effective ways to address the threat that such content poses, especially to women and underrepresented groups.
Protecting Net Neutrality
Congresswoman Speier supports efforts to restore Obama-era net neutrality principles that were rolled back as part of the Trump Administration’s pro-industry and anti-consumer agenda. Reinstating net neutrality legislation would prohibit internet service providers from blocking or throttling access to websites, which would make sure that the internet is open and free so that all web users can access the websites they want equally easily.
Harmful and Toxic Consumer Products
Congress must remain active in protecting our physical environment and consumer products. From asbestos-containing talcum powder, which is used in numerous consumer goods, to cancer-causing PFAS, which was used in consumer products and heavily used on military installations as firefighting foam, Congress must raise attention about dangerous chemicals and products that harm our health and environment, and pass laws protecting the public from them.
Especially concerning are products that can cause harm to children and teenagers. In 2015, Congresswoman Speier introduced legislation that would have toughened requirements around liquid laundry detergent pods that have can be deadly when ingested by children and toddlers mistaking them for candy. In response to the Congresswoman’s bill, manufacturers voluntarily established an industry standard geared toward protecting children. Similarly, Congresswoman Speier led the charge to keep children safe from heavy metals in jewelry, recalled toxic McDonald’s cups that contained cadmium, and removed BPA and other endocrine disrupters from children’s products.
In her role on the House Oversight Committee, and as a member of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Protection, Congresswoman Speier supports investigations into toxic and dangerous products. This includes inclined baby rockers linked to dozens of infant deaths and the electronic cigarette maker Juul, which has blatantly targeted children and teenagers in an attempt to create a captive consumer class for its highly addictive nicotine-packed product.
Repealing the Pink Tax
Gender-based pricing of goods and services, or the Pink Tax, is another area of consumer protection in which Congresswoman Speier has led the way in seeking a legislative solution. Simply put, the Pink Tax is an insidious form of institutionalized discrimination that affects women across the country and over the course of their lifetimes. It is compounded by the fact that women start off with less money in their pockets due to the gender wage gap. In the U.S., women still make 82 cents on the dollar compared with men’s earnings and the inequality is even worse for women of color. This means income losses from the Pink Tax are even more financially damaging than the raw numbers indicate.
In order to finally put an end to discriminatory pricing practices, Congresswoman Speier introduced the Pink Tax Repeal Act which would prohibit differential pricing of consumer products and services that are substantially similar when pricing differences are based on the gender of the consumer. It also allows the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to treat and enforce a violation of this act as an unfair or deceptive practice and gives State Attorneys General the authority to bring civil action on behalf of state residents in order to compel compliance with the law or obtain damages, restitution, or other compensation on behalf of residents of the State. This legislation builds on the Repeal the Gender Tax Act that Congresswoman Speier passed into law in the California Assembly.